Transcendent Man

A well-made, insightful documentary that asks some hard questions while leaving just as many unanswered.

A well-made, insightful documentary that asks some hard questions while leaving just as many unanswered, “Transcendent Man” is an intriguing study of techno-prophet Ray Kurzweil. Helmer Barry Ptolemy has a fascinating subject in Kurzweil and his expansive theories, and this film — a natural for healthy homevideo release and cable — should only increase his visibility (and speaking fees). Still, one wishes it weren’t so transparently on his side.

The titular transcendent man refers not to Kurzweil but to one of his most famous theories, though one imagines “Unreasonable Man” would have served him better as a title, were it not already taken. A child prodigy who built a computer while still in high school in the ’60s, Kurzweil has since attained patents for such diverse inventions as print-to-speech reading machines for the blind and high-powered music synthesizers. Yet he’s attracted the most attention with his theories of singularity, which combine technological insight with an amorphous spirituality (as well as, allegedly, some very classically Freudian wish fulfillment).

Essentially, Kurzweil envisions a future in which artificial intelligence will propagate itself and allow for exponential technological growth, and the human brain and body will become inseparably fused with computers, allowing us to become essentially immortal and omniscient. As speculative futurist theories go, these are hardly outlandish. But Kurzweil is unique in his belief that these technological upheavals will be entirely positive, and that they will all have occurred by the year 2045.

To his credit, Kurzweil never appears to be crazy. In fact, he’s almost preternaturally calm and businesslike, hopscotching around the globe to deliver lectures and hobnob with Colin Powell and William Shatner. And to the filmmakers’ credit, his theories never seem entirely crazy either, and they are explained here both simply and thoroughly. There’s also a truly touching reason for Kurzweil’s single-minded optimism, one the film handles beautifully.

A host of critics (most notably Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly) discuss the obvious dystopian implications of his theories, as well as to question his technological bonafides — though just as many point out how many of Kurzweil’s previously unreasonable theories have come true. (He predicted the rise and uses of the Internet, the year a computer would beat a human at chess, the fall of the USSR, et al.)

Yet the film never asks the big question. Essential to Kurzweil’s theory is the notion (though Kurzweil and the film call it “the law”) of accelerating returns, which posits that technology will invariably continue developing at a rate exponential to that of the present pace. Even considering the epochal leaps in innovation that have occurred over the past half-century, this still seems an utterly unsupportable theory. Civilizations and ideas almost never develop linearly for long — they collapse, they decline, they dedicate themselves to grand leaps in social evolution that turn out to lead nowhere (the Great Wall of China is a potent symbol of the latter, as are the reign of Ozymandias, disco, etc.). The film never brings this up, nor does it interview skeptics who do.

At times the film also seems to stack the deck in subtle ways. Stanford neuroscience professor William Hurlbut makes some very good criticisms of Kurzweil’s ideas; as he’s speaking, the camera pans over to his desk and lingers on a fundraising letter from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, as though the man’s religious or political beliefs should throw his (largely valid) criticisms into question. Considering the role that faith (of a different kind) plays in Kurzweil’s thinking, this seems unfair.

Tech contributions are very solid, and original music by Philip Glass is effective.

Transcendent Man

  • Production: A Ptolemaic Prods. production in partnership with Therapy Studios. Produced by Barry Ptolemy, Felicia Ptolemy. Executive producers, Joe Disanto, Drew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle, John Ramsey, Wren Waters, Doobie White. Directed by Barry Ptolemy.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Shawn Dufraine; editor, Meg Decker, Doobie White; music Philip Glass; art director, John Cranston. Reviewed at AFI Film Festival (Documentaries), Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2009. Running time: 84 MIN.